Forty-three years ago, many Western policymakers were taken aback by the speed of the Shah’s overthrow in Iran. On the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, the international community should endeavor to see the parallels between that time and today. They are manifold, and they point to the same basic outcome.
Of course, the essential difference is that the collapse of the existing regime would be unequivocally in the interests of both the Iranian people and the Western powers that once propped up the Shah and are now at odds with the clerical regime.
Domestic unrest was omnipresent in the run-up to the revolution, but foreign observers generally took it for granted that the Shah would hold on to power in spite of all of that. Many of them are making the same assumption today, at a time when the unrest is becoming more evident as time passes.
Since the end of 2017, the Islamic Republic has seen at least two protest movements that rose to the level of nationwide uprisings. Several others came close, while comparatively small-scale protests have been almost unprecedented in the frequency of their recurrence from day to day and from month to month.
In the final days of 2017, a protest was organized in the city of Mashhad over the state of the Iranian economy. But the scope of its message quickly began growing to reflect the notion that the national leadership and the very structure of the ruling system were responsible for the tumultuous economy, among other problems. At the same time, that protest began spreading to other localities, and by mid-January 2018 it had encompassed well over 100, across all 31 Iranian provinces.
The nationwide uprising was eventually brought to heel following several dozen deaths and thousands of arrests, but less than two years later it inspired another that broke out spontaneously across nearly 200 cities and towns.
Both uprisings featured chants that called for “death to the dictator” and condemned both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of the regime. Both uprisings made it rather clear that the Iranian people support the prospect of regime change, and thus both uprisings prompted regime authorities to acknowledge the prominent role played by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (also known as MEK).
That entity was founded in the mid-20th century and contributed to the Shah’s overthrow, but then promptly fell out with Ruhollah Khomeini’s faction as Khomeini moved toward establishing a totalitarian theocracy and became the leading voice for a democratic alternative to the theocratic dictatorship. With this in mind, it should be even easier for Western policymakers to recognize the signs of a brewing revolution, because they are largely coming from the same source as the prior signs of revolution which so many of those policymakers recognized only in retrospect, after 1979.
There is good reason to avoid making that same mistake again. By recognizing the signs of revolution in advance this time, Western powers can prevent themselves from being caught unawares and trying to make deals with a government that this unstable and is facing growing unrest and dissent at home to the point of uncertain future.
Arguably more important, though, is the fact that Western powers now have an opportunity to place themselves on the right side of history by supporting a change against a theocratic system that is renowned for violently repressing its people and making trouble throughout the region and the world.
The MEK continues to lead the movement for change in the wake of the 2018 and 2019 uprisings, as evidenced by the fact that state media outlets all across the Islamic Republic were disrupted by supporters on Jan 27 to spread the message of regime change. The “Resistance Units” that are affiliated to the MEK have been operating tirelessly across the country posting images of the Iranian opposition leader-in-exile Maryam Rajavi and calling attention to the fact that the group’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has designated her to lead a transitional government following the mullahs’ overthrow.
In light of growing unrest and dissent, the West need not do much other than avoid handing Iran a lifeline in the form of conciliatory deals on the country’s nuclear program or anything else. They might even consider expanding sanctions further, or exerting other pressures on the regime, as by investigating leading officials for human rights abuses and violations of international law, with an eye toward prosecuting them and further undermining Tehran’s already vulnerable political situation.
A major change in Iran will have far reaching impact beyond Iranian borders for the better. The key point is that west cannot afford and should not be caught off guard again. The sooner we realize the trend, the more prepared we will be for the change.
R. Bruce McColm is the President of the Instituted for Democratic Strategies and former Executive Director of the Freedom House.